Iran’s supreme leader is attacking president Rouhani as part of a drive to eliminate moderates and reformists, argues prominent investigative journalist Akbar Ganji
By: Akbar Ganji
A speech by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, on 7 October to commanders and officers of Iran’s navy attracted wide international attention. Khamenei declared that he had banned any negotiations with the United States about non-nuclear issues.
Thus, it appeared that his position with regard to the US had changed, as on 9 April he had declared:
“Now, this [nuclear negotiations] is a new experience. If the other side [the US] sets aside its bad behaviour, this will become a new experience for us, one that will tell us that, well, we can also negotiate with them about other issues. But, if they repeat the same behaviour and take the wrong path, it [the negotiations] will only reinforce our past experience.”
The shift happened after 14 July, when the comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers was announced. Since then, Khamenei seems to have become more radical, and constantly warns his nation about the danger of US influence. What are the reasons for this? In the context of the regional crises and his deep distrust of the US, Khamenei has two overreaching objectives.
One is to preserve his grip on power and prevent meaningful internal change. Khamenei’s second objective is to warn the US that Iran will not make further concessions and will maintain its regional leverage until he is confident the US will deliver its side of the nuclear agreement.
In seven speeches on 17 August, 22 August, 26 August, 3 September, 9 September, 16 September, and 7 October, Khamenei has spoken harshly about the US and warned against its expanding influence in Iran. The main points that he has been making are as follows.
First, the US is the symbol of a great power seeking world domination.
Second, the US wants to create fissures within Muslim masses in order to expand its influence in Islamic nations. In the name of democracy and human rights, the US has destabilised the Middle East, leading to spread of terrorism.
Third, relations between Iran and the US before the 1979 Revolution were shaped by the 1953 CIA coup toppling the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Since the Revolution the US has sought the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, doing everything it can to achieve its goal, including supporting Saddam Hussein’s regime during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, introducing crippling economic sanctions, and accusing Iran of trying to develop nuclear bombs.
Fourth, in its negotiations with Iran, the US goal is gaining “political, cultural, security, ideological and economic influence”.
Fifth, the US goal in nuclear negotiations has never been a guarantee Iran would not make nuclear weapons, because Washington always knew Iran was not seeking a bomb. Khamenei even told President Rouhani and his cabinet that “they [the US] are after penetrating the country, after [gaining] influence. They may try to do this by various ways; be careful.”
He added: “My humble opinion, which I have told our friend in the government and other officials, is that they should not give the United States an opportunity inside our country, and they should do the same in foreign policy. You must absolutely not give them opportunities [to gain influence] in Iran.”
Sixth, another goal of the US is making political decisions for the officials of the Islamic Republic, so that a “change of behaviour” by Iran “changes the nature of the Islamic Republic”. Thus, everyone must be careful not to become an executor of US plans, which is trying to have people it trusts in key positions in the decision-making of the Islamic Republic.
Seventh, there are groups in Iran trying to change the image of the US. In a speech Khamenei said: “Some people insist on putting makeup on the face of this great Satan… to present it as an angel. Why? [Even if we] forget about Islam and revolutionary behaviour, what about [our] loyalty to the national interests of the country? What about wisdom? What wisdom and conscience allow one to choose a power like the US as our friend and saviour?
“Through the Revolution, the [Iranian] people kicked out the United States. Now, after the nuclear agreement, some people are trying to bring it back. We should not allow it to return through the window after it was kicked out through the door. We should not allow it to gain influence, [because] its enmity [towards Iran] will never end.”
Eighth, in a speech to commanders of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Khamenei said: “I have constantly warned about US influence. To penetrate our country the enemy uses academics, student activists, the scientific elite, journalists, and others. We should identify the weaknesses of the US intelligence and operations [and take advantage of them].”
Ninth, according to various reports, in private meetings with the staff of his office, as well as with members of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that appoints the supreme leader, Khamenei has said that some officials – President Rouhani, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and others – want to re-establish formal diplomatic relations with the US.
I have been reliably informed that Khamenei has stressed he will oppose the re-establishment of formal relations “as long as” he lives, as it would open the way for the US to gain influence in Iran. Credible reports from Iran indicate that the intelligence unit of the IRGC, as well as the intelligence ministry, have submitted to Khamenei very negative reports about Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister.
Confronting Rouhani and Zarif
After his private warnings fell on deaf ears after his speech of 7 October, Khamenei not only criticised the proponents of negotiations with the US, he also responded to President Rouhani bluntly. He emphasised that the only goal of the US in negotiating with Iran was gaining influence. He then divided proponents of the negotiations into two groups: the “thoughtless” – those who do not care about the national interest – and the “nonchalant”, those who do not understand the depth and complexities of the issues involved.
It appears that Khamenei considers President Rouhani as nonchalant, a view that emerges from a dialogue rooted in the history of Shia Muslims.
In a speech on 22 October 2014 to a huge gathering in Zanjan, a city in northwest Iran, Rouhani said, “Although Imam Hussein [the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, and a revered figure in Shia Islam] knew that he would be killed by Umar ibn Sa’d and his forces [in the Ashura Day of 10 October 680 AD], he negotiated with him for hours to prevent war.”
“The lesson of Kerbala [the city in Iraq where Imam Hussein was subsequently killed] for us is one of constructive give-and-take and negotiations within a rational framework and principles. Our Imam [Hussein] taught us that even with our enemies we should treat them in way that the world sees us as the victor. We are negotiating with the world powers within such a framework. With God’s blessing we will continue along this path to address the people’s problems.”
A year later, Khamenei thought it was time to respond to Rouhani by presenting him as naïve, as someone who failed to understand both the issues facing the nation and Islam’s history. Khamenei told Rouhani that Imam Hussein did not want a deal with Umar ibn Sa’d, but was browbeating and admonishing him. Khamenei then attacked Rouhani:
“Is this the way you understand the history? Is this the way you analyse the lives of the [Shia] Imams? Just to negotiate with the Great Satan [the US], some nonchalantly and…without understanding the truth give an [erroneous] example [about what Imam Hussein did] and say, ‘Why do you not negotiate with the United States?’ This is the depth of their misunderstanding of the issue.”
Khamenei explained that he did not in general oppose deal-making and that Iran negotiates with every country. But, the US is an exception, because the Americans want negotiations with Iran to gain political, social, cultural and economic influence. The Americans’ goal is changing the calculations of the officials of the Islamic Republic, influencing public opinion, and changing the religious and revolutionary thoughts of the people. Everyone must be alert. If everyone did that, Khamenei said: “I have no doubt that the enemy will be defeated.”
Khamenei set ‘red lines’ that the agreement has crossed
During the talks leading to the nuclear agreement, Khamenei set many red lines for Iran’s negotiators, ruling out visits to military sites, interviews of nuclear scientists, and international inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites beyond those allowed by Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Safeguards Agreement and its Additional Protocol. He was also opposed to the agreement being implemented in several steps. In a speech to the military college on 20 May Khamenei said,
“We have already said that we will not allow any visit to our military sites. They [the world powers] say they need to interview our scientists, which means interrogating them. This is an insult to our scientists in the nuclear and other sensitive areas, which we will not allow. We will not allow foreigners to speak to the dear elite children of Iran that have expanded this [nuclear] science in our nation. Our flagrant enemies expect us to open our doors and allow them in to speak to our scientists, our academics, our researchers. This will absolutely not happen.”
Khamenei had emphasised that all economic sanctions against Iran should be lifted the day after the nuclear agreement was announced. Since that did not happen, he protested and spoke as if he opposed the agreement. In a speech to the members of the Assembly of Experts, the constitutional body that appoints the leader, on 3 September he said:
“That we sat down and negotiated, made some concessions, [and] retreated from some of our positions were all for getting the sanctions lifted. If the sanctions are not to be lifted, there will be no deal…The sanctions must be lifted. They [the US and its allies] cannot just suspend them. If they want to suspend the sanctions, well, then, we will also suspend [some of our nuclear activities, rather than terminate them]. If they want only to suspend sanctions, then why should we change anything fundamental on our part? The goal has always been to get the sanctions cancelled.”
According to the nuclear agreement only some sanctions will be lifted. There will also be more intrusive inspections, probably more visits to military sites, and there may even be conversations with Iran’s nuclear scientists, all of which cross Khamenei’s red lines.
This explains why Khamenei emphasises that each time Iran provided an opening or opportunity during the nuclear negotiations, the US took advantage to gain more influence. He said: “There were occasions in which they [the US] had some opportunity, gained more influence, and acted against our national interests.” Hence Khamenei has made it clear he is not happy with his red lines being crossed.
In the speech on 7 October he declared: “What is forbidden is negotiating with the United States. It has numerous losses [for us] and no benefits. This is different from negotiating with a government that has no such power [as the US] or any motivation [to harm us]. This is not understood by others [Rafsanjani, Rouhani, Zarif and the reformists].”
Khamenei’s concerns about the consequence of the nuclear agreement
Khamenei has been concerned about the consequences of the nuclear agreement. There are at least ten reasons.
One, the agreement boosted Rouhani, Zarif, and moderate forces with public opinion, especially among the middle class and well-to-do. Zarif is popular, even more so since he recently shook hands with President Barack Obama at the United Nations. But in a dictatorship, only the dictator can be popular. Thus, with Khamenei’s green light, highly intense attacks against Rouhani and Zarif have begun. The goal is to change the public’s view of the two men.
Two, nationwide elections for the majles, Iran’s parliament and the Assembly of Experts are due on 26 February. There is already a fierce power struggle reflecting the importance of the elections. Given that Khamenei has been ill, it is quite likely that the next Assembly will appoint his successor. By talking about the US, its influence, the “naïve defenders of negotiating with the US” and “agents of US influence”, Khamenei has been trying to eliminate supporters of Rafsanjani and Rouhani from any role in appointing his successor.
Three, there is a fierce struggle over scarce resources, power, wealth and social position. Islam has been turned into one tool in this struggle. Rouhani and his supporters refer to the Shia Imams and how they treated their enemies, while Khamenei and his supporters try to present a different interpretation of the same history.
One example is Hassan, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the second Shia Imam, signing a peace agreement with Muawiyah, founder of the Umayyad dynasty, and abdicated as the caliph. Khamenei himself has said in the past that if Hassan had not done so, the entire family of the prophet would have been murdered, and there would not have been anyone to protect and espouse Islamic values.
Responding to Rouhani’s likening of the nuclear agreement with Imam Hassan’s peace treaty with Muawiyah, Ahmad Alamolhoda, the hardline Friday prayer imam of Mashhad, a city in northeast Iran and a member of the Assembly of Experts as well as an ally of Khamenei, said, “After Imam Hassan’s peace treaty, the Shia were very unhappy.”
Then, five weeks later on 21 August, he said, “The conditions for examining the nuclear agreement and approving it [by the Majles] should be similar to what Imam Reza [the eighth Shia Imam] did when he agreed to be the Crown Prince of al-Ma’mun [the Abbasid Caliph who reigned from AD813-AD]. The Imam accepted it because he wanted Shiism to be recognised and thrive. The nuclear agreement should also produce the same type of results in that anti-Americanism should become more widespread; it should not lead to more influence for the US.”
Thus, all factions interpret Islam’s history in a way that benefits them. Islam has been turned into a tool for advancing their particular agenda.
Four, more than anyone else, Khamenei has interpreted Islam’s history in a way that benefits him and his supporters. In referring to the Hudaybiya peace treaty, signed by the prophet Muhammad with non-believers of Mecca in AD628 despite protests from some supporters, he said: “The prophet’s excellent plan forced them [the non-believers] to sit down with him and sign the agreement so that he could go to Medina but return the next year to Mecca for the hajj [pilgrimage]. It also opened up for the prophet the possibility of espousing his religion in the entire region. This is what is called peace.”
But Khamenei has also admitted: “This agreement created storms in the minds of some of the believers, because when the non-believers asked the prophet to delete ‘in the name of God, the gracious, the most merciful’ from the treaty, he accepted. This created some problems. Some [of the believers] were concerned, were anxious; they had developed doubts.” But, Khamenei has emphasised that, “This peaceful confrontation [with the non-believers] had many blessings.”
Thus, the Hudaybiya peace treaty with the non-believers was a give-and-take deal. The prophet also did something political in order to advance his cause. To reduce enmity with Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, the powerful chieftain of the Quraish tribe in Mecca, the prophet asked him to allow him to marry his widowed daughter, Umm Habibah. After the two married, the prophet said, “The snout of this bull [Abu Sufyan] could only be rubbed against dirt this way.”
Years later, Abu Sufyan converted to Islam, and as Khamenei has acknowledged, transformed the caliphate of the prophet’s family to an absolute monarchy. Thus, one could credibly say that it was the prophet that made it possible for the Umayyad Dynasty to be founded and have influence.
Khamenei has made frequent selective uses of Islamic history. In July 1999, during the uprising of university students, he was worried about being toppled. In a speech on 14 July 1999, he wept and declared he was ready to be martyred. Then, in another speech a year later he claimed that murder of Imam Hussein was the “natural” outcome of the peace treaty.
On 21 April 2000, Khamenei said that it was due to expediency of protecting Islam that “Imam Hassan was forced to accept the peace treaty [with Muawiyah]. They took away his caliphate from him. Then, the event of Kerbala [where Imam Hussein was killed] could not be prevented; it was unavoidable.”
Then, he quickly compared those events with his own plight and declared that “today, the US cannot impose peace on us like the one imposed on Imam Hassan, but if it pressures us too much, we will have a Kerbala-like event,” meaning that he will not accept something akin to what Imam Hassan did, and similar to Imam Hussein is ready to fight, and expects to win.
But, the interpretation given by supporters of Khamenei, that he and the hardliners are prepared to wage a cultural “war” with the US, akin to what Imam Hossein did, has no relation with the nuclear agreement. The “peace” in the nuclear dispute was reached after Iran made many concessions, reflecting a balance of power between the two sides that was not in Iran’s favour. The world that we live in is one in which the US and Russia together have 16,000 nuclear warheads, and Israel has anywhere between 80 to 300 warheads, and yet the United Nations Security Council tries to limit Iran’s conventional defensive weapons.
Five, the reformists, led by former president Mohammad Khatami, as well as Rafsanjani, Rouhani, Hassan Khomeini [a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Revolution], and former parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri [once a close ally of Khamenei but has now realigned] are planning to defeat the extremists in the upcoming elections.
They are aware that the hardliners will not allow any of their leading figures to be elected. Thus, they will run lesser known figures, although the Guardian Council, the constitutional body that vets candidates, may disqualify thousands of them. But, the reformists and their allies believe that holding the upcoming elections under conditions similar to those that led to Rouhani’s election in 2013 will be a great victory.
Khamenei and his supporters are aware of this, and are concerned. They want to get rid of the moderate forces, but are afraid that the consequences of the nuclear agreement will prevent them from doing so.
Six, the extreme right, akin to the US Tea Party and the most important social base of support for Khamenei, opposes the nuclear agreement and any negotiations with the US. Similar to the Tea Party, Iran’s extreme right does not have a broad base, but Khamenei believes that it would fight for him in the event of a threat to his rule or a national crisis. To keep these supporters happy after his nuclear red lines were all crossed by Zarif and Rouhani, Khamenei is trying to radicalise the political atmosphere.
During the annual mourning period to commemorate the death of Imam Hossein, which is held in the supreme leader’s reception area, the hardliners shouted very harsh slogans against Larijani and Rouhani, with Khamenei trying to stop them. It was as if the two men had forced Khamenei to accept the agreement. Rouhani protested to Khamenei.
Despite this Zarif participated in the Vienna conference on Syria, and met with Secretary of State John Kerry. Thus, Khamenei’s declaration that negotiations with the US over any issue other than the nuclear agreement are banned is purely for internal consumption, and contacts between the two nations will continue. But, the jury is still out on whether any possible agreement with the US over Syria will turn out to be something that is to Khamenei’s liking, or it will be something akin to the nuclear agreement whereby Iran made significant concessions.
Seven, whenever Khamenei makes a false claim about his critics and opposition, the ministry of intelligence and the intelligence unit of the IRGC try to “prove” it. In that same speech, referred to above, on 21 April 2000, Khamenei said, “I am suffering from what is happening in our country. It is a sad story.”
He explained: “The United States has a base in Iran. A part of our press is the enemy’s base. The responsible organisations must become aware that this is a huge threat. If they do not stop this threat, the enemy will take another step forward, and will be rejuvenated. This is not preventing free flow of information, but preventing the enemy from gaining influence.”
After his speech the judiciary, which Khamenei controls, shut down tens of newspapers, magazines, and other publications, and arrested many journalists. But Khamenei’s intelligence organisations could never prove the journalists were agents of the “enemy”.
If one is to compare the current state of affairs with the prophet’s era, the nuclear agreement is akin to what Imam Hassan did with his peace treaty: there will be peace and gradual lifting of the sanctions, in return for major concessions by Iran. The danger of military attacks by US and Israel will also be lifted.
So, now that Khamenei is no longer concerned about military attacks, he is constantly talking about “the enemy’s agents”. New repression and a crackdown on the opposition may be on their way. There is a danger that the judiciary may arrest some leading reformists, force them to “confess” that they work for the US, and broadcast the “confessions” on national television.
Fars, the news agency controlled by the IRGC, published a letter on 5 October from 11 hardline majles deputies in which they claimed that Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has been incarcerated for 445 days, “is a professional spy and US intelligence agent in Iran” and that it was “imperative that the judiciary allow broadcast of his confessions to inform the nation”.
Even the mere talk of “films” of Rezaian’s confessions is evidence for my analysis of Khamenei’s thinking. The arrest of another Iranian-American Siamak Namazi last week by Revolutionary Guards intelligence further indicates where developments are leading. In all likelihood, Namazi will be described as an “agent” of American influence.
In yet another episode, former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s tourism visit to Iran has drawn harsh reaction from conservatives. They claim this trip “is part of a project to influence [Iran]” and aims to “test Iran’s public opinion in the aftermath of the nuclear deal.”
Mashregh, a website operated by the Revolutionary Guard has stated that American-Iranians “are the invisible conduits of American influence in Iran”, implying that any dual-national coming to Iran must be treated as a potential spy.
But the most important targets to be singled out, as agents of American influence, are domestic critics of the IRI. Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, who leads Friday prayers in Mashhad and is a member of the Assembly of Experts, has stated that the looming election constitutes a likely avenue of American influence, with the Americans using as spies those have a difference of opinion with Khamenei and his followers.
Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi – one of Khamenei’s representatives in the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, which controls the policy of all cultural institutions – said in a pre-sermon address at Friday prayers in Tehran on 30 October that the US had had an influence at the outset of the revolution in the government, the Council of Cultural Revolution, seminaries and the parliament.
Azghadi stressed this was not a purely historical problem: “Right now the Americans have agents all over the institutions of the Islamic Republic and use every one of them in some fashion. We are certain that right now some people cooperate with the intelligence agencies of the US, Britain, and the Zionists.” He put the number of these agents at 5000 to 10,000, represented in various political factions.
This repeats what Khamenei has done many times to his critics and opponents. When he feels that his Islamic Republic must be rescued, he uses the moderates and reformists, but once he feels that he no longer needs them and there is no domestic or international pressure, he tries to eliminate them.
Khamenei is well aware that, when it comes to threats to Iran’s national security and interests, the reformists will not act against him. He is also well aware that to save the nation from a national crisis, or to prevent war and to confront warmongers, both internal and external, the reformists have been willing to work with Khamenei. But, Khamenei and his supporters do not want Iran’s political environment changed. To prevent change in the status quo, they need to propagate anti-Americanism and create imaginary enemies.
Eight, Khamenei speaks as if it is only the US that seeks influence in Iran, as if Russia, China, and European countries were not pursuing the same. Naturally, every country follows its national interests and seeks to influence other countries.
Khamenei’s supporters liken the nuclear agreement to the Treaty of Turkmenchay, signed between Iran and the Russian empire in 1828 whereby Russia annexed large parts of Iran’s territory in the Caucasus region. After World War II, Joseph Stalin also tried to annex two provinces of Iran. Therefore, Russia, China, and the other states pursue their own interests in Iran, the same thing that Khamenei calls “influence”. The Islamic Republic, too, pursues its own interests in other countries and seeks to influence them.
Nine, now that the Vienna nuclear agreement is on the verge of being implemented, and there is a very positive atmosphere for improving the economy. The nuclear agreement with world powers, under American leadership, and the new round of negotiations on the peaceful resolution of the internal conflicts in Syria – in a democratic fashion – creates great domestic and international opportunities for Iran. The post-Vienna agreement era has created the opportunity to address some regional problems, and confront Saudi Arabia’s sectarian policy in the Middle East, putting to good use Iran’s strategic importance.
But Khamenei shows no inclination to use these opportunities. Instead, the economic, political, and ideological interests of a faction of hardliners in Iran are tied to continuing failed policies and preserving tension with other nations. Without enmity toward foreign powers, the very existence of this faction is threatened, and normalisation of relations between Iran and other nations is apparently a grave personal threat to Khamenei.
Ten, it should be emphasized that reaching the Vienna nuclear agreement was the easier step in this process. The more difficult step is implementing the agreement. Khamenei must learn that the nuclear agreement has many enemies in the US, Israel, and the Arab countries. They are all trying their best to make sure that the agreement fails.
It is utter naiveté on Khamenei’s part to believe that by cracking down on the internal opposition with the excuse that they are US agents, he can neutralise security threats to Iran. But, if Khamenei persists in the path he has chosen, not only will Iran and Iranians fail to benefit from the nuclear agreement, they will suffer major losses. Iran can be a powerful country only by becoming a democratic state in which human rights are respected and its political prisoners released.